TNR’s Reid Cherlin reports on the trip he took halfway around the world with Chuck Hagel
It was a weird trip, that jaunt to Asia. Hagel was due at a meeting of defense ministers from the ASEAN countries, being held in Brunei, and he made stops along the way in Hawaii, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila to show off the Obama Administration’s “strategic rebalance,” better known as the “pivot” to Asia. The day before Hagel took off from Andrews Air Force Base, however, Bashar al-Assad launched a Sarin attack on his own people, and Washington began to gear up for punitive airstrikes. It left the Secretary in the unenviable position of having to embark on a low-stakes diplomatic trip as the real decision-making was going on back in the capital. Hagel and his press staff made a big deal about how he was staying up all night to join secure videoconferences with the White House, and how a modern-day Pentagon chief needs to be able to walk and chew gum—but it was painfully awkward that the President was planning a war and hadn’t recalled the Secretary of Defense to come and help. Instead, this veteran legislator and heterodox thinker—boss of the world’s largest military—was asked to be a human placeholder.
But I doubt the next SecDef will do any better.